An Unlikely Group Has Wild Atop NHL
This article appeared on NHL.com from correspondent Jerry Brown.
While the rest of the hockey world waits for the Minnesota Wild to start acting like the team predicted to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a country mile, the best team in the NHL is waiting to see just how good it can be.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that on a team with offensive stars like Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Mikko Koivu, grinding center Kyle Brodziak would have about as much of a chance of leading Minnesota in goals as the Wild would have of winning 17 out of 21 games. But after 30 games, both parts of that equation amazingly hold weight.
In Saturday's 4-1 win against Phoenix, Brodziak scored his ninth and 10th goals, giving the Wild their seventh win in a row, their seventh-straight road win and win No. 20 of the season – just 30 games into an improbable season for the State of Hockey.
Minnesota went to bed early Sunday morning with 43 points – four more than any team in the League and five more than any team in the West. The Wild are the first team to 20 wins – evenly split between home and road – and fun is following them wherever they go.
"There's a lot of belief right now that we're for real, and if there's a reason why we feel that way, it's because of the way we come to the rink and the way we prepare," said Brodziak, whose never scored more than 16 goals any of his six previous NHL seasons "We're not where we want to be yet. We still have work to do and we'll continue the process when we get back (to practice) Monday."
The Wild, now an NHL-best 10-3-2 on the road, swept the three California teams this week before rolling into Phoenix, scoring on their first shot of both the first and second period, scoring three times on the power play and turning the Pacific Division-leading Coyotes into docile desert dogs. They headed home to Minneapolis for a day off before heading to Winnipeg to finish a run of five straight road games Tuesday against the Jets.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom lost his bid to shut out the Coyotes with 3:57 left, but it didn't detract from the joy he's having playing behind a team that blocked 21 shots Saturday and more than 500 already this season.
"We've had some good teams here in the past, some really good things have happened here," said Backstrom, part of a division winner with the Wild in 2007-08. "This is a really good start, we know it's 30 games and that's nothing. But we know we can be even better, and that's the fun thing. We want to see where the limit is for us."
Perhaps the most incredible part about this surge? The Wild are doing it shorthanded.
Six regulars, including mainstays like Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck, Guillaume Latendresse and Marek Zidlicky, missed the game with Phoenix. With Backstrom and backup goalie Josh Harding both injured earlier this week, Matt Hackett made his NHL debut in relief against San Jose and won – and then won his first start two nights later in Los Angeles.
Hackett is one of nine rookies to play for Minnesota this year and one of 32 players to pull on a Wild sweater – yet another League high. And before Brodziak potted a pair against Phoenix, the team didn't have a 10-goal scorer.
With those circumstances, maybe having a plumber leading the way in goals doesn't seem so strange anymore.
"Why not? Why couldn't he be?" said Mike Yeo, Minnesota's rookie coach. "Because of the way he plays -- his attention to detail, his commitment to the system -- he comes back to the bench and every shift he feels good. He's confident and you kind of build momentum within your own game."
That process is happening up and down the bench. More confidence. More commitment. More momentum.
"It's been business, but it's been fun as well," said Koivu, who had a goal and an assist against Phoenix to give him a team-best 26 points. "Working hard can be fun. It's been a lot of fun around these guys. The road trip, the whole year has been fun. But it's only fun when the wins are coming. So we have to keep it going."